10 Best NBA Draft Bargains of All Time

Jun 23rd, 2011

Now that the NBA draft has concluded, the so-called experts will spend the next few days speculating about the possible busts and bargains, wrongly predicting who’ll be the next Adam Morrison or Carlos Boozer. The reality is that nobody will truly be able to evaluate this year’s draft until years down the road, when the players have actually had a chance to fail or succeed. For the sake of being positive, we’ve decided to review the best bargains in draft history — the players who slid down the draft board while other players with, as it turned out, inferior talent and weaker hearts, captured the fancy of general managers. Each of these guys made All-Star appearances, some were inducted into the Hall of Fame, some were key contributors to championship squads, and none were drafted higher than the 23rd pick.

  1. Cliff Hagan — 1953, Round 3, Pick 24

    Many basketball fans remember Hagan for his Kentucky basketball career in which he was part of the first college sports team to receive the death penalty, his part in the Bill Russell trade, and his stint as Kentucky’s athletic director prior to the basketball program’s near-death penalty in 1989. But his greatest accomplishments came when he played for the St. Louis Hawks. Utilizing the classic hook shot, the 6’4 forward was one of the league’s steadiest scorers during the late ’50s and early ’60s. Alongside Hall of Fame teammate Bob Pettit, he helped the team dominate the Western Conference. Resume: six-time NBA All-Star (1958-62, 1968), NBA champion (1958), Hall of Famer (1978).

  2. Alex English — 1976, Round 2, Pick 23

    Few players in NBA history have scored as proficiently as English, an underrated forward during an era in which the league was driven by high profile stars. His Nuggets scored at a legendarily frenetic pace, lighting up JumboTrons (or whatever predated them) from The Great Western Forum to the Boston Garden. Notably, he contributed 47 points in a 186-184 triple-overtime victory over the Pistons in 1983, the highest-scoring game in NBA history. He averaged 25 or more points per game for eight consecutive seasons (1981-1989), missing just four games during that span. Although he never reached the NBA Finals, he led the Nuggets to nine consecutive playoff appearances. English was a model of consistency. Resume: eight-time NBA All-Star, NBA scoring champion (1983).

  3. Dennis Johnson — 1976, Round 2, Pick 29

    It was a heck of a year for second-round picks. How often do players selected that low end up being the best player on a championship team? With his clutch scoring, stingy defense and advanced leadership skills, Johnson led the Sonics to the 1979 title, the year after he went 0-14 in Game 7 of the Finals against the Bullets. That resilience was again evident during the classic battles between his Celtics and the Lakers during the ’80s. He’s best remembered for his series-changing defense on Magic Johnson during the 1984 Finals, his buzzer-beater in Game 4 of the 1985 Finals, and his game-winning layup after Bird’s steal in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. Resume: five-time NBA All-Star (1979-82, 1985), All-NBA First Team (1981), six-time NBA All-Defensive First Team (1979-83, 1987), three-time NBA champion (1979, 1984, 1986), NBA Finals MVP (1979), Hall of Famer (2010).

  4. Maurice Cheeks — 1978, Round 2, Pick 36

    Hailing from small West Texas State University, now West Texas A&M University, Cheeks was understandably under the radar when he entered the 1978 draft. Because he was an unknown commodity, he fell into the grasp of the Sixers in the second round, who made him their starting point guard for the next 11 seasons. When he retired, he was the all-time steals leader (now fifth) and ranked fifth all-time in assists (now 10th). Like Johnson, Cheeks was valued for his defensive and leaderships skills, which were essential during the Sixers’ 1983 championship run. Resume: four-time NBA All-Star (1983, 1986-88), NBA All-Rookie First Team (1976), four-time NBA All-Defensive First Team (1983-1986), NBA champion (1983).

  5. Bill Laimbeer — 1979, Round 3, Pick 79

    Two years after the Cavs stole Laimbeer in the third round, they allowed the Pistons to snag him in a four-player, two-pick trade. During his best years with the Pistons, the only team with a winning record against Jordan’s Bulls, Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers, he was a double-double machine and an intimidating defensive force down low. He was reviled by opposing fans for what many deemed as on-court thuggery, as he constantly committed hard fouls beneath the basket and embellished light contact to induce calls in his favor. Perhaps most unique about Laimbeer’s game was his ability to hit the outside shot — he made more than 200 threes during his career. Resume: four-time NBA All-Star (1983-85, 1987), two-time NBA champion (1989, 1990).

  6. Mark Eaton — 1982, Round 4, Pick 72

    Finding an effective big man to serve as a defensive presence down low has always been a challenge for NBA teams, which is they the Pistons were lucky with Laimbeer. In 1982, Jazz coach Frank Layden took a chance on the 7’4 Eaton, a former auto service technician who was discovered by an assistant basketball coach at Cypress Junior College. As a rookie, he set the Jazz’s franchise record in blocked shots, which he would break in each of the next two seasons — his 456 blocks in 1984-85 still stands as the league’s single-season record. During the ’80s, he was generally regarded as the most impactful defensive player in the game. The Jazz had the NBA’s highest defensive rating in four seasons in which he started at center (1984-85, 1986-89). And, despite being so tall, he managed to remain healthy, missing more than three games only once (his final season) during his 11-year career. Resume: NBA All-Star (1989), three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team (1985, 1986, 1989), two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1985, 1989).

  7. Mark Price — 1986, Round 2, Pick 25

    Ten years after 1976, the second round produced two more memorable stars. A two-time All-American at Georgia Tech, Price had thrived against difficult competition in college, but it didn’t prevent general managers from doubting his ability to perform as a competent NBA point guard. In just his second season, however, he proved that he belonged as he became the starting point guard of the Cavs, who received him in an overlooked draft-day trade. Aside from being one of the best at his position during his career, Price forged a reputation as one of the league’s all-time greatest shooters. Price is just one of five players to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line in a single season (Bird, Miller, Nash and Nowitzki are the others). Currently, Price is tied with Steve Nash as the all-time career leader in free throw percentage (.9039). Resume: four-time NBA All-Star, All-NBA First Team (1993), Three-Point Contest champion (1993, 1994).

  8. Dennis Rodman — 1986, Round 2, Pick 27

    Laimbeer’s teammate was also an integral part of those Bad Boys squads, serving as the spark off the bench during most of their run. A ferocious rebounder and relentless hustler, he emerged as perhaps the league’s best defensive player as Chuck Daly steadily increased his minutes. For seven consecutive seasons during the ’90s, three of which came as a member of the Bulls’ second three-peat squad, he led the league in rebounding, twice averaging more than 18 per game. Regardless of his impressive accomplishments, many will remember him for the controversy he provoked on the court, the antics in which he partook off the court, and his general flamboyance (multi-colored hair). Resume: two-time NBA All-Star, seven-time NBA All-Defensive First Team (1989-1993, 1995, 1996), two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1990, 1991), five-time NBA champion (1990, 1991), Hall of Famer (2011).

  9. Manu Ginobili — 1999, Round 2, Pick 57

    Picked second to last in the 1999 draft between the faceless Tim Young and Eddie Lucas, Ginobili, then an emerging Euroleague standout, was a low-risk, high-reward investment for the Spurs. In his first season with the team in 2002-03, he became a key member of the playoff rotation en route to his first championship. From that point forward, he assumed a larger as one of the Spurs’ primary scorers, which enabled them to win two more championships. An excellent source of energy with few offensive weaknesses, basketball fans from all over the world (Argentina to the U.S. to Italy) have marveled at Manu’s game. Resume: two-time NBA All-Star (2005, 2011), NBA Sixth Man of the Year (2008), three-time NBA champion (2003, 2005, 2007).

  10. Tony Parker — 2001, Round 1, Pick 28

    The selections of Ginobili and Parker are a testament to the resourcefulness of the Spurs’ scouts and organization as a whole, one of the best in all of sports. As a 19-year-old rookie with two years under his belt in the French basketball league, Parker made an instant impact as the starting point guard on the 58-win team. As he evolved into one of the league’s best at his position, and Manu did the same, the Spurs featured one of the best backcourts in the league, and the team matured into a dynasty. After the Spurs’ fourth championship, Greg Popovich reflected on Parker’s underwhelming first workout with the team, bluntly saying "I didn’t like him" because he failed to show physical toughness. Fortunately for the Spurs, Pop soon had a change of heart. Resume: three-time NBA All-Star (2006, 2007, 2009), NBA All-Rookie First Team (2002), three-time NBA champion (2003, 2005, 2007), NBA Finals MVP (2007).

Honorable mention: Monta Ellis. Sure, he’s not the most efficient player around, and he benefits from playing in the Warriors’ up-tempo offense, but how many general managers select a player in the second-round (Ellis was the 40th player taken overall in 2005) expecting him to score 25 points on a nightly basis? Once he gains a little more recognition, he’ll be shoe-in for these lists.